French animation feature film “April and the Extraordinary World” gives us a literally extraordinary world to admire and appreciate. Although its story is not as bountiful as its visual pleasures on the screen, its imaginary world is interesting and delightful to observe for odd, distinctive style and imagination, and there are a number of fabulous moments I still vividly remember with lingering amusement and satisfaction.
At the beginning, we get the prologue sequence describing how its 20th century world came to diverge from our version because of one incident during the late 19th century. When the conflict between France and Germany was about to culminate to a war in 1870, French Emperor Napoleon III came to a secret laboratory whose recent project might give a considerable advantage to his army in the upcoming war, but then an unfortunate deadly accident happened during his clandestine visit, and this completely changed the course of history for not only Europe but also the whole world. The war known as the Franco-Prussian War in our world did not happen as Napoleon IV succeeded his deceased predecessor and then made a peace treaty with Germany, and that led to more stability of the monarchy in France as it kept expanding its influence around Europe.
While the human civilization entered the 20th century on this alternative timeline, the advance of science technology was somehow slowed down considerably as many of leading scientists around the world were vanished without any trace. As a result, the human civilization kept being stuck with steam engine instead of moving onto electricity and gasoline, and the world becomes quite dour in 1931 due to consequent environmental problems as well as continuing national conflicts.
In the meantime, Dr. Prosper Franklin (voiced by Jean Rochefort) has worked on a scientific experiment originated by his dead father, who was killed during that accident in 1870. With his son Paul (voiced by Olivier Gourmet) and Paul’s wife Annette (voiced by Macha Grenon), he is about to accomplish at last what he has hoped for many years, but then their secret laboratory is suddenly surrounded by Detective Pizoni (voiced by Bouli Lanners) and his men. While they manage to escape along with Paul’s young daughter April (voiced by Marion Cotillard), the Franklins soon become separated from each other, and April is left alone with her talking cat Darwin (voiced by Philippe Katerine) and a certain item which contains the final result of her grandfather’s experiment without her knowledge.
10 years later, April is now living with Darwin at her hidden place in Paris, and she has been trying to reproduce the experiment result by herself although there is still a lot she has to learn as an amateur researcher. We see her stealing a chemistry book and chemical materials to help her meager experiment, and we also come to understand more of her personal motive. I must say that there are lots of silly scientific terms to tickle me and my academic colleagues during her experiment scene, but you cannot deny her spirit and determination as watching her being focused on her latest attempt.
Not long after April comes to realize the importance of that item in her possession, she finds herself under another perilous circumstance. Besides Darwin, the only character she can depend on for now is a young likable small-time crook named Julius (voiced by Marc-André Grondin), but we already know that he is an informer under the supervision of Pizoni, who is still looking for any chance to lead him to April and her missing family. In addition, there is also a mysterious group searching for what April has, and it becomes more apparent to us that this group is behind the continuing disappearance of scientists around the world (the latest one is Enrico Fermi, by the way).
As April and her two companions bounce around here and there in their risky adventure somewhere between “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” (2004) and “The Adventures of Tintin” (2011), the movie entertains us with many splendid visual moments as brandishing its gray brown steampunk style. While these moments are tinged with dystopian mood as required, they are presented with small and big details to engage us. In case of one particular scene involved with a big warehouse, its nice visual surprise took me back to Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004), and I also enjoyed the ashy sights from the alternative version of Paris, which is mainly represented by the twin version of the Eiffel Tower.
But the story suffers from its notable flaws at times. While its first act is a bit overlong, its third act is contrived to say the least, and you may question the plausibility of its alternative world as you think more about it. For instance, can technological and scientific development be really arrested for more than 70 years just because of the academic holes left by those vanished scientists? And, above all, how can they be so easily persuaded to serve together for a plan to be revealed later in the story?
Anyway, I remain to be charmed by the steampunk style of “April and the Extraordinary World”, and the co-directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci did a good job of presenting a vivid, compelling old-fashioned world based on their graphic designer Jacques Tardi’s graphic novel. While most of the characters in the film are caricatures, April comes to us as a heroine as plucky as Merida in “Brave” (2012) and Anna in “Frozen” (2013), and Marion Cotillard and other cast members of the movie provide solid voice performances on the whole. It may not be the best animation film I saw in 2016, but it comes with style and personality, and I like that.
Sidenote: In the US version, Angela Galuppo provides the voice performance for April while supported by prominent American performers including Tony Hale, Susan Sarandon, J.K. Simmons, and Paul Giamatti.